There was a long moment without a reply, then Zack turned to scowl at him. “You don’t know a fucking thing about me,” he repeated, but the emotion wasn’t directed at Danny this time. “So, what, you feel bad? You’re gonna save me now? Maybe buy me like that fucking building? The rich douchebag is gonna swoop in and save the poor kid from his shitty life?”
Danny could only chuckle at that and it caught Zack off guard. “Of course not. How can I save you? I’m a fucking mess. I can barely force myself out of bed in the morning.”
The kid seemed surprised. He had this situation all figured out in his head, but now it wasn’t going the way he expected and he didn’t know what to do. Danny crouched down in front of him and put a hand on each knee. His gaze met a single blue eye, barely peeking out from behind the blond curls, and he gave him another soft smile.
“I can’t save you, Zack. Not right now. But I’d like to be your friend.” The kid flinched. “If you need someone to talk to, or just someone to insult, I’m always around. If something happens and you don’t want to go home, my door is always open. Life is hard, and everyone is struggling with something, but we aren't meant to go through it alone. You don’t have to do this alone.”
There was only the briefest pause, that blue eye looking into his, before Zack removed the peas and set them onto the couch. “It’s been twenty minutes,” he said matter-of-factly, as if their conversation had never happened. He stood, Danny’s hands falling away, and headed to the door. “I should get home. And I left my stuff.”
Danny stood and nodded, well aware the kid was overwhelmed and just wanted to leave. This was going to take time, but he didn’t have anywhere else to be.
“Oh.” The kid hesitated, gripping the door handle. “Don’t come by the building next week, okay?”
With a quick, half-hearted wave goodbye, Zack was gone, leaving Danny so wrapped up in his own thoughts, he didn’t notice the kid still had his wife's picture in his hand when he walked out.
Danny strolled nervously down the sidewalk, the abandoned building - his building – growing larger in view. It hadn’t been a full week, but he had this strange knot in his stomach that he couldn’t ignore anymore. It had been there since he had realized his picture was missing. He didn’t know why the kid would want to take it or why he would tell him to stay away, but the more he thought about it, the more uncomfortable he became. So despite the request, he was headed to Oak and Church this evening as usual. It wasn’t like he had agreed to stay away anyway.
As he rounded the corner, he heard a quick, “What the hell, old man,” followed by the rattle of the metal ladder. Zack was scrambling down to meet him, but he stopped at the bottom, letting out a resigned sigh.
Danny had already looked at the mural and his eyes had already gone wide in shock. There, two stories high, was the image of his wife. She wore the same yellow sundress and bright, cheery smile from the photo, but on the wall she was standing in a field of wildflowers and tall grasses, a breeze blowing her long, light brown hair and the thin hem of her skirt.
It wasn’t completely finished, some details were still needed, but it was clear enough - clear enough to make him collapse to his knees, and clear enough to make his eyes water. Looking up from the concrete, Danny barely noticed Zack sigh again and slowly walk over. He hardly felt the hand on his shoulder as his chest tightened and he slumped, palms pressed into the sidewalk to hold himself up.
“What the fuck, old man. I said a week. It’s not finished yet.”
Danny sobbed. He had cried plenty of times in the last year, but now his tears came from emotions he had been repressing for months. He felt genuine grief – not the kind you tell yourself you’re supposed to feel, but is too mixed with a bitter numbness to really accept. Then he felt relief – relief that he was finally able to admit to such a feeling and relief that he was finally able to move on from it. Then he felt guilt – guilt for feeling relieved and guilt for moving on.
He had no idea how long he was on the sidewalk until Zack removed his hand and crouched next to him. “Shit, man. Get over it already.”
Choking on his sobs, he immediately switched to heaving laughter, then alternated between the two as he unsuccessfully tried to compose himself.
“What the... You sound fucking crazy.” Zack let out a huff and Danny heard that lightness again, counting it as a laugh in his mind.
Clearing his throat a few times to slow the ridiculous noises, Danny shifted to his heels, then fell onto his back. Looking up from the ground, he saw his wife through blurry, red eyes.
“Ah... she was really gorgeous.”
Was. Using the past tense for the first time made him smile softly.
“Yeah.” Zack leaned back onto his hands. “Would be prettier if you’d’ve let me finish.”
Danny huffed out his own light laugh, then turned his gaze to the kid. As always, hair covered most of his face, but he thought the corners of Zack’s mouth might have curled up slightly.
“Yeah.” Zack turned to see him staring and any smile quickly became a frown. “Why’re you staring at me like that? It’s fucking creepy.”
Danny shrugged, grinning a bit.
“Whatever. Just don’t hug me or something. I don’t do that shit.”
With a snort, Danny sat and stretched. His head was killing him, the dehydration hitting hard, and he groaned. After another few moments and a few deep breaths in and out, he pushed himself up and brushed off his clothes.
“All of that crying made me hungry.” He held a hand out to the kid to help him up. “Want to go get something to eat?”
Zack stood up on his own, refusing his help, but walked over to collect his cans and bag and then joined him at the corner.
“What do you like?”
The kid shrugged. “Pizza?”
Blond curls bounced as his head popped up at his name. They still hung long, but the shorter bangs at the front allowed his squinted, blue eyes to clearly show.
“Your dad is here.”
With a groan, Zack pushed himself from the desk and grabbed his bag. Passing another boy closer to the door, he heard a low "Later douchbag."
He didn’t turn, just raising a hand as he exited into the hallway. Danny was leaned up against the wall waiting for him and when the kid came close, he frowned.
“What is this,” he asked, hiding a contented pride with mild disappointment. “The third time this month? You’re lucky I have a lot of vacation time and Larry is a decent boss.”
Zack just shrugged and kept walking, Danny matching his pace as they headed through the main door and out onto the school lawn.
“One semester,” Danny continued. “You just have to make it one more semester and you’ll be sixteen. Do you have a compulsion? A disease? Should I take you to see someone?”
The kid huffed, shifting his bag on his back. “Guy was an asshole. Picking on some little freshman. Deserved what he got.”
“I’m sure.” Danny chuckled and ruffled his hair, receiving a hiss and a swat of the hand. “It would be more impressive if you actually won any of these fights you start. I doubt you’re any bigger or stronger than that ‘little freshman’ you’re trying to save.”
“Tch. Fuck off old man.”
“Tch. You fuck off.” Danny chuckled again, a mocking laugh at his violent, but well-intentioned son. “I’m not paying for reconstructive surgery when someone bashes your nose into your face.”
The two walked across the lawn in quiet until Danny chuckled yet again and Zack flashed him a questioning look.
“Who was that kid? The one who called you a douchebag.”
“Nobody.” It was obvious from the pink in Zack’s cheeks that it wasn’t nobody.
Danny moved a little closer. “Really? He was a good-looking nobody...”
That got a little more pink and a faster stride in response. Danny sped up, throwing an arm around the kid and pulling him to his side.
“You’re so damn cute.”
“What the fuck,” Zack groaned, struggling to get out of the half-hug. “Get the hell off me old man.” The hold didn’t loosen and the kid gave up. “You’re so fucking annoying.”
“I know. Come on, my righteous delinquent. Let’s get home.” Danny dragged him across the rest of the lawn and through the parking lot to the car, only letting go when he reached the passenger-side door.